What's guiding Israel's actions on the Lebanon border?

The researchers mentioned that while for the most part, Hezbollah’s missiles are small and inaccurate, “the sheer amount of them makes them an efficient weapon.”

Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018 (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
In northern Israel the IDF continues to dig and expose tunnels and break apart Hezbollah’s attack array.
What’s more, it’s turning the northern region into a pilgrimage site for politicians armed with windbreakers, who are there to shoot declarations toward the border – which are really meant for the Israelis, meant to increase our self confidence and calm our fears.
Netanyahu visits troops in Lebanon border amid tensions, December 11, 2018 (GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed up there this week, threatening Hezbollah that were they to dare respond, they will be hit in a way they can’t even imagine. He then had black coffee with the soldiers there before going right back to slamming the media while his son gives cameramen the finger during his day in court, and his wife spreads smiles and photo ops in Guatemala.
It’s hard to say whether Netanyahu actually managed to deter Hezbollah – and maybe he did – but he did expose something else with regards to Operation Northern Shield: a deep, disturbing disagreement with the US regarding Lebanon.
This was one of the reasons for Netanyahu’s urgent meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels. According to political sources, Netanyahu went there to explain the IDF’s defense move in the North, to discuss options and scenarios for deterrence, and to talk about the US’s support of the Lebanese army.
This wouldn’t be the first time. A senior source has revealed that Israel has been working for a while now on “incriminating” the Lebanese army – proving that they are working alongside Hezbollah.
Col. (res.) Giora Eiland said this week that this is a delicate, complicated issue because the only way to deter the Iran-backed Hezbollah is to clarify that any kind of campaign by Israel would be “all in,” which would stand to harm Lebanon itself, including infrastructure, roads, airports, oil reservoirs and Beirut.
Netanyahu and his ministers continue to talk only about Hezbollah itself, but Eiland stresses: We have to make sure they understand that an attack from Lebanon territory risks the entirety of Lebanon.
UN Ambassador Danny Danon admitted to me that the US isn’t buying it. It sees the Lebanese army as one they can work with, and that’s why it pays for and trains the army – which this week took station at the border, right in front of Israeli soldiers. Israel passed along testimonies and intelligence files about Lebanese officers who are doing everything Hezbollah asks of them, but Pompeo, like his predecessors in the State Department, believes there are still people to work with in Lebanon.
Thus, Israel and the US are in disagreement, one that could hurt Israel’s deterrence capability.
In fact, Israel knows – especially now, after exposing the tunnels – that its ability to hurt Hezbollah is limited. If they managed to dig these tunnels inside Israel, imagine what they had dug in southern Lebanon as part of the preparation for an Israeli attack.
We saw the same thing 12 years ago in Hezbollah’s “Nature Reserves,” and now it’s even more elaborate and sophisticated.
This is also evident from an American research report published this week, claiming that Hezbollah currently holds some 130,000 missiles of various kinds, and that it is “the world’s most well-armed player which is not a country.” The researchers added that their list of missiles is in no way final, and it’s based only on overt sources – so it is certainly possible that an additional arsenal is hidden underground.
The researchers mentioned that while for the most part, Hezbollah’s missiles are small and inaccurate, “the sheer amount of them makes them an efficient weapon.”
Hezbollah has an additional arsenal of Skad missiles, which are considered particularly threatening thanks to their launching abilities. However, they are difficult to carry around, hide and operate. “They don’t give Hezbollah much advantage,” wrote the researchers.
One more point that comes up in the report is that most of Hezbollah’s missiles cover a relatively small space, but they do compel IDF planes to fly higher and so might scale down Israel’s ability to hit ground objectives. In this scenario, Israel could find itself facing off against a Lebanese army paid for by the US government, while Hezbollah is deep in the ground, shooting constantly, and forcing Israel into complicated ground action that will lead to multiple casualties.
Hezbollah’s tunnels are meant to surprise Israel and to maintain a deterrence balance along the border, wrote Yoram Schweitzer and Ofek Riemer from the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). The tunnels are a part of a ground-attack plan created by Hezbollah called “Conquering the Galilee” and meant to help the organization’s commando units penetrate Israel and obtain a victory photo op by taking over – even if temporarily – a village, an IDF base or a major road.
The researchers wrote that taking this ability away from Hezbollah would prove Israel’s military superiority and deepen the gulf between Hezbollah and Israel in a way that could shift the deterrence balance that has been stable since 2006. For instance, from Hezbollah’s point of view, if Israel feels relatively protected from the threat, it is more likely to challenge Hezbollah’s redlines by attacking Lebanon – which, according to the INSS, will invite an escalation.
Right now, Israeli and Lebanese soldiers are facing each other, only a few dozen kilometers apart. The atmosphere is quiet, tense and explosive. Israel’s moves are out in the open and the potential targets are clear, in case things go south, so to speak. This is just one part of the campaign against Iran. The true aim is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah’s move of creating rockets for accurate long-range guided missiles on Lebanon soil.
In Syria, Israel has the ability and the legitimacy to operate. In order to widen the limits of such an operation, an Israeli military delegation left for Russia this week. The Russians are signaling that they are hard to get – for instance, by sending junior ranks to this meeting – but Israel isn’t there to make friends, it’s there to clarify redlines. This is a part of Netanyahu’s wider diplomatic move: he warned Lebanon about the price it might pay, he exposed critical sites during his recent UN speech, and he met with Pompeo on the subject.
All this tension is exposing the main – and strange – problem: the US’s insistence on seeing the Lebanese army as something open for influence. Washington does not want to give up any influence in a region conquered both militarily and diplomatically by Russia. But for Israel, this creates a vague restriction.
Earlier this week, former prime minister Ehud Olmert denied absolutely any operational restrictions laid on the IDF by the US during the Second Lebanon War. His ministers and IDF senior officials remember well Condoleezza Rice’s instructions, which limited some of their ability to use force. In the next war, Israel has to act in Lebanon quickly, strongly and with no restrictions if it wants to create a quick ceasefire.
Right now, the US is tying our hands behind our back – that still needs work. It speaks of a certain thought pattern in Washington while Israel, ever grateful for the embassy move and the UN veto, should be modest in its objection to US strategic moves in the region.
One more question remains: Is this the same thought pattern that guides the Trump administration’s “deal of the century” peace plan for the Middle East?